Sonos

Audio over the internet isn’t new, but it really is barely tolerable if it’s not coming out of good speakers with power behind them. These days there are lots of ways to accomplish this, but one reigns supreme. Sonos!

Sonos has already been reviewed in Cool Tools, but it deserves a revisit, especially considering the evolution of new features & configurations possible.

A Sonos “zone” is a single Sonos Box that features both an internal amplifier for direct connection to proper stereo speakers, as well as line-level outputs to your otherwise superb existing stereo system.  You can also use a single Sonos speaker as a mono output, or pair two speakers that, when synchronized, produce a stereo output. Oh, and there’s also a Sonos subwoofer available. A Sonos system can operate up to 32 wirelessly interconnected zones. Each zone can operate independently, or each can be tied to operate synchronously with other zones.

It can use sources as diverse as a line in (stereo, radio, computer, DVD/BluRay, TV, whatever), to local digitally stored content from a laptop, NAS, server, whatever, available to a single Sonos zone box (or bridge) which needs to be Ethernet cabled to the LAN (after which it’ll serve the whole Sonos system). Or you can stream things from Pandora, Spotify, XM, etc.

As far as control, you can use the optional handheld wireless controller (color display, etc), a computer based interface, or apps for most/all smartphones and tablets.

While Sonos may seem pricey at first, once it’s up and running it seems like the best bargain ever. When I’m at home I listen to WXPN (Philadelphia) or WFUV (NYC) almost exclusively – the best, I think, of the remaining old-style college radio stations. There’s a great station from Uganda that is terrific, too, in a wholly different way. And there are almost too many different sources to play with, so happy hunting.

My Sonos system may not actually be the best thing I’ve ever owned, but it always pops into my head as just that: The Best Thing Ever.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Sonos Play 3
$300
Available from Amazon

Sonos Play 5
$400
Available from Amazon

Sonos CONNECT:AMP
$500
Amazon

Sonos Bridge
$50
Amazon

Manufactured by Sonos

We first reviewed Sonos five years ago, and it remains one of the best networked home audio system available today. --OH



Planet Waves Tune Up

I’ve been using this tuner on my iPhone for about a year now. It’s a great, accurate and very cheap guitar tuner. I’ve tried other tuner apps, but they were not as accurate as this one. The free Gibson Learn & Master-app, which includes a chromatic tuner, is not usable because it is far from being accurate. I also tried another free app called Acoustic Guitar which again doesn’t work because you have to rely on your ears to tune your guitar.

In practice I’ve compared Tune Up to my standalone Boss TU12 guitar tuner. I use the TuneUp’s ‘needle’-display, which is much like the TU12′s display, and found the output to be the same: both are accurate, but the iPhone’s built-in microphone is much more sensitive than the TU12′s built-in mic, so it much easier to tune up an unplugged electric guitar with the TuneUp app. For the TU12 to get a good result you have to hit the (unplugged) string real hard, as for TuneUp, it immediately responds, so TuneUp output is quicker dispayed and it is also easier to tune because when your tone is sharp or flat it is shown in the display, as for instance ‘A#’ as the TU12 only shows a red triangle on the tight if the tone is sharp and a red triangle on the left if it’s flat. Another advantage for the TuneUp app over the TU12 is that if you forget to turn off the TU12, your 9V battery is sucked dry even when you put it aside.

The biggest disadvantage of the TuneUp-app is that for unplugged electric guitars it is quite unusable in noisy environments as it will pickup too many surround sounds. This is one of the main reasons why I’m not selling my TU12 as I rely on the ability to plug in the electric guitar directly into the tuner. Also, for adjusting the bridge-saddles I still rely on the TU12, with the guitar directly plugged in the TU12. But that’s because I still have not adjusted a guitars bridge setup using the iPhone-app. Maybe I will in the near future…

With Tune Up I can always tune a guitar everywhere I go, and now most of the time I can leave my good old ‘bulky’ Boss TU12 at home!

-- Douwe Rijpstra  

Planet Waves Tune Up
iOS
$1

Available from iTunes Store

Produced by Planet Waves



Pilot’s BlueTooth Noise Control Headset

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I work in a lot of data centers where the noise can be almost intolerable. My increasing tinnitus is probably a symptom of being in those places so much, and troubleshooting via cell phone is almost impossible, definitely supremely frustrating, with almost every headset I’ve tried, wired or BT.

So I found a Pilot’s-type headset with full Bluetooth profiles. It’s the Millennium Series with inline BluLink Adapter from Pilot-USA.

This thing is far from cheap and, of course, makes me look like a complete doof. But it plays music from my cell with terrific clarity and also lets me converse as if we’re in a private library. The BT implementation is excellent and gives the full features their due.

(Though my new phone – a Nexus S – currently won’t recognize the phone profile! I’m hoping ICS brings it to working status with this phone, so, fair warning!)

As expensive as this is, it’s about half the price of the Lightspeed Zulu or Bose A20 headsets. If you need this level of clarity, it’s a deal.

This headset provides by far the best phone experience I’ve had yet in seriously noisy environments.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Pilot PA-2170BLU Bluetooth Headset
$410

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Pilot USA



Wind Chimes: Design and Construction

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Make your own. Not those tinny flea market varieties, but large striking sonorous chimes tuned in all manner of unusual styles. (Listen to samples on the book’s website or included CD). There are several dozen unusual ways to tune the chimes. All tunings are fairly mathematical, which is the core of this book, but not difficult to execute with hardware-store tubing. My son and I used this short but very explicit manual to create a large copper pipe one that emits a lovely melody in the breeze. The bigger the better. (The bigger the more wind they need, too.) This guide is a very practical way to experience the math of music and the beauty of alternative music systems.

Setting up the hanging strings at the correct spacing.
Windchime2.jpg

Our copper chime hanging in the cherry tree.
windchime.jpg

-- KK  

Wind Chimes: Design and Construction
Bart Hopkin
2005, 68 pages
$15

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

chime spacing.jpg

chime rope.jpg




Howard Leight Sync Earmuffs

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For years I have worn the previously reviewed Peltor AM/FM Ear Muffs while out mowing the lawn, or when working around loud noises. I was routinely disappointed by their lousy reception, but put up with it as I couldn’t find anything better for the price that still provided hearing protection. Recently, my stepson (Disclosure: This editor is his stepson.–OH) gave me a pair of the Howard Leight Sync Stereo Earmuffs to try out, and I haven’t used my Peltor muffs since.

The Sync Earmuffs do not have AM/FM reception, but instead rely on a 3.5 mm auxiliary input cable like you would find in a car. They come with an appropriately sized mini-to-mini cable that I plug into my iPhone (which is where you also control the volume). Now instead of listening to poor AM/FM reception, I can listen to the BBC America app, my music library, podcasts, and, if I really wanted to, one of the many available FM/AM emulators from the App Store.

As far as hearing protection, the Sync Earmuffs have a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 25, which is similar to the rating for the pair from Peltor. I have found that they provide the same amount of protection. They are also lighter, don’t require batteries, and are roughly a third the cost of the Peltor pair.

The best part is that I no longer miss phone calls when I’m out on the tractor (which had been a serious problem), and am no longer startled when my wife shows up behind me screaming her head off trying to get my attention. I don’t even have to take the headphones off to take the call, I simply speak into the microphone on the phone and the sound gets ported through my headphones.

-- Rick True  

[For those interested in learning more about sound attenuation, I found this PDF explaining how they calculate Noise Reduction Ratings to be fascinatingly complex.--OH]

Howard Leight Sync Stereo Earmuffs
$22

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Howard Leight



Sangean AM/FM Pocket Radio

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This Sangean pocket radio costs a lot more (4x) than the smallest available iterations from Sony and Panasonic, but it’s well worth the extra cash for two reasons. The first is that it picks up AM way better than anything in its size/weight class, both in terms of the number of stations and, equally important, the strength and clarity of the signals. And secondly, its size, 3.5″ x 2″ x 0.6″ (measured by me) and weight, 2.05 oz. on my postal scale.

Note that there’s no speaker so you have to use earphones (they come with a pair). Finally, its form factor is remarkably similar to that of the long defunct iPod mini. Now I can listen without static on AM as Larry, Sonny and Sam call the woeful Redskins’ games.

-- Joe Stirt  

Sangean DT-180 AM / FM Pocket Receiver
$36

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Sangean



Yurbuds

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Yurbuds are my solution for exercising with headphones. They fit over top of existing headphones, though most of the options that you can purchase from the website come with a pair of in-ear earbuds. They twist in and have never fallen out on me. I just upgraded to the ironman version recently and have never fiddled with them once I start running. I run half marathons and did a full marathon earlier in the year, in the rain, and had no issues with my music the whole time training and running the race.

If you run regularly in races, they are often at many of the expo shows that happen before the race and will be willing to let you try a pair on. They have sizes in the blue/pink versions, but the ironman have a softer gel that fits with any size ear.

-- Allen Reinmeyer  

Yurbud Ironman Headphones and Adapters
$46
Available from Amazon

Yurbud Adapters
Several sizes
$20
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Yurbuds



Coby CV198 Noise Cancelling Headphones

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I front a band (the Deathbillies) and we rehearse in three separate studios with JamHub headphone mixers. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve developed the following requirements for headphones for live rehearsal: 1) A single-sided cord, so you can throw the cord behind your back, and it doesn’t get in the way of the guitar or drumsticks. 2) A detachable industry-standard 1/4″ or 1/8″ male-to-male cord that you can replace with any other standard male-to-male 1/4″ or 1/8″ male-to-male cord. 3) Full-size earcups, but not so big that they trap humidity.

The Coby CV198 wins on all three, and at about $30 they’re a bargain. I have at least 10 pairs of these headphones spread across three studios. They use a noise-cancellation system powered by an included AAA battery (but are great without the cancellation turned on).

The only drawbacks to these headphones are that they require a battery to work in any mode, and inserting the battery requires some patience and deductive logic. Also, the included 1/8″ stereo cable is really short, but as the cord is detachable and replaceable with any 1/8″ stereo cable you like I’ll be happy to replace the $1.50 cable instead of discarding the headphones when they short at the hardwire cable connection (which is how even the $300 high-end headphones tend to fail.)

-- Basil White  

Coby CV198 Noise Canceling 198 Stereo Headphones
$31

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Coby



Altec Lansing Orbit

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I’ve used this ultra-portable mono speaker for nearly two years, and can’t recommend it enough. Even though it is “mono”, it is “very good mono”, and part of the reason I chose mono is because of the sound limitations of small stereo speakers, best illustrated by Christopher Locke’s comments regarding KK’s review of the iPal.

This little thing easily fits in your backpack, briefcase, purse, or even clipped to your belt for mobile tunes. And the sound is really, really good. Many would call it amazing. Can I compare it to others? I’d rather not get into a holy war. The Orbit, in my mind, is a cool tool for being excellent at what it does for about $20.

I think it is pretty safe to say, that for the intended purpose, it seems to be among the top, if not the top, rated portable speakers for listening to your iPhone, iPad, mp3 player, etc.

I went looking for something like this when I realized that I had a great little MP3 player that was about the size of a matchbox, but unfortunately could only listen to through headphones. There were so many times when we’d go to the park and have a picnic or something and we’d like to have some tunes, but didn’t want to lug yet another thing the size of a boombox. It’s enough to have the ice chest, the bbq, the basket/box of food, etc.

This little hockey puck (well, only slightly thicker, at about 2″) does the trick. We use it often around the house to plug into the laptop when we want to have some tunes but not through the tinny laptop speakers. It comes with a nice little case, a carabiner clip, runs on 3 AAA batteries and just seems to go and go.

There are some minor complaints among detractors, most commonly by people expecting the unreasonable; that a 2 to 3-inch speaker should be able to bring you to your knees with your hands over your ears. It’s not going to be your solution if you want to blast dance band volumes out of your pocket, but it certainly is just the ticket to have on the table with you on the back porch, or beef up the sound out of your laptop.

It is one of my most successful purchases, with great bang for the buck.

-- Jeff Jewell  

Altec Lansing Orbit Portable Speaker
$70

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Altec Lansing



Pure i-20 iPod Dock

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For years I have been looking for a reasonable solution to poor audio quality from iPod devices. Their sound has gotten worse and worse with every succeeding generation, and the only way to obtain quality, outboard digital-to-analog conversion has been to purchase two expensive bulky and cumbersome devices: one to translate iPod digital to common standards and then an outboard digital-to-analog converter. The cheapest combination of products I could find cost about $700.00 and took up a lot of space.

The PURE i-20 fixes all that for $100.00. As a dock it also powers iPod-type devices, and provides both video and audio outputs, including analog audio far superior to any iPods (using its own built-in converters) and digital audio for conversion by high-end devices. Finally, its supplied remote control provides greater control of your device than the Apple Remote can.

Although the audio stored in most iPods is compressed, the compression algorithms used are about the best available, and very good. (I’m an audio engineer and remember discussions at the high end of the mastering community when AAC encoding was introduced and the reaction was very positive.) This means iPods have the potential to deliver high-quality sound, but they don’t.

Most of the sound quality issues people complain about with their iPods/iPhones comes from the circuits which convert the digital music signal to an analog one, for headphones and connection to our stereo systems. Among enthusiasts the consensus is that the analog output from iPods has gotten steadily worse for years.

IPods provide a digital signal output through the bottom connector (which would permit high-quality conversion to analog) but it’s hard to access electronically. Until the PURE i-20 came along, there was no reasonably-priced way to improve the audio quality of iPod playback. As mentioned below, it took combining different expensive devices (a special dock with digital outs and a digital-analog convertor). The PURE i-20 outputs a digital signal and ALSO an analog one using its own digital-analog convertor.

I’ve used the PURE i-20 two ways- I’ve listened to its internal analog-digital convertor, and connected its digital output to an outboard $400+ audiophile convertor: the PURE was remarkably competitive with the outboard unit.

A total winner, in my eyes.

-- John Etnier  

Pure i-20 iPod Dock
$100

Available from and manufactured by Pure